Recall, if you can, how terrifying the world was in 2000.
After the enthusiasm around Barack Obama’s election to the presidency in 2008—and with the 15-year gap between Y2K and now—it’s easy to forget just how hopeless things felt at the turn of the millennium. The frenzied anticipation for Y2K—distinctly manic in its tone—ended up being pretty anticlimactic; 2000 wasn’t the future, it just sounded like it. The political landscape was marked by bitterness and scandal on both sides of the aisle; the year before, in Colorado, the Columbine massacre ushered in what is now a depressingly familiar phenomenon: the American mass shooting. It was an era of bad pop music and brick-like cellphones, distinctive for its glitzy, superficial marketing of the future and slow destruction of that same future with gas-guzzling SUVs.
It was an especially awful year for liberals; for those of us who were either developing a political consciousness or had one already, 2000 marks the beginning of two terms of a lot of despair. The 2000 election required massive, mind-contorting suspension of disbelief to be happy with—a hypocritical, partisan Supreme Court decision, behind-the-scenes political maneuvering, and a shocking display of nepotism and corruption that haunts us to this day. And if that wasn’t enough—it would have been enough on its own—less than a year later, terrorists attacked New York City and Washington, D.C. The history of the modern era is pre-9/11 and post-9/11; it’s been 14 years since that attack, but if we have moved on, in some ways, we will never quite recover.
It was a dark, terrifying world. Which is why it felt, perhaps, like comedy was all we had left to hold on to.
When Jon Stewart took over Comedy Central’s late-night news-and-politics show from Craig Kilborn in 1999, he was a relative unknown taking over a show that hadn’t gained too much traction. The tenor of political humor was sarcastic, cynical, and entrenched, led by personalities like Howard Stern, Rush Limbaugh, and Bill O’Reilly, directed at either the Clinton administration’s scandals and secrets or the hypocritical bluster of the Republican Congress.
Stewart was different. His humor was underscored by earnestness; his “moment of zen”—which started in Kilborn’s era—seemed to ask the viewer not to forget their troubles with humor, but instead to examine them more closely. And in an era that felt like rapidly unfolding chaos, “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” became not just a weeknight check-in but a rallying point for like-minded liberals—a refuge, really. As the rest of the world went into incomprehensible patriotic overdrive—every 24-hour network adopted a news ticker, every politician started wearing a flag pin, and the armed forces started preparing for war against someone—“The Daily Show” appealed to the viewer’s sanity, to their humanity, to their sense of reason.
The show was unabashedly liberal—specifically because, as longtime writer and correspondent Stephen Colbert said to the White House Correspondents’ Association, “Reality has a well-known liberal bias.” And unlike the shtick of most other late-night comedians, Stewart’s thing is that he was, quite simply, a well-intentioned good guy.
There were missteps and mistakes, of course. But Stewart has the distinction of being one of the most trusted people in America—earning it episode by episode over the past 16 years. It’s not easy to have an audience support you wholeheartedly; it’s not easy to do that as a comedian that deals largely in politics on a network known mostly for stand-up specials and fringe sketch shows. Stewart did it, and continues to do it; he’s extended that brand to Colbert, Larry Wilmore, Steve Carell, John Oliver, Rob Corddry, and more.
If the voice of the people is the voice of God—if comedy is the second, far more critical draft of history, following the news—then Jon Stewart is one of the most influential political figures of our era, despite having never run for public office, written a word of policy, or strategically donated millions and millions to a special-interest group. But his show, and his perspective, and his steadfast commitment to liberal-minded sanity got a lot of us through eight years with a crappy president and eight election cycles in a country that is increasingly polarized on the most basic civil rights, on the most essential responsibilities of government. Stewart was the liberal organizer and rallying point before Obama’s presidency was a twinkle in David Axelrod’s eye; as difficult as it has been to advance a progressive agenda over the last 16 years, it would likely have been impossible without Stewart’s ability to connect to millions of viewers and remind them that they weren’t alone in hoping for something better—better from government, better from media, better from each other.
I realize I’ve made it sound like Stewart is an evangelical preacher, or a crusading politician, or a peerless investigative journalist, instead of what he essentially is: a comedian with a late-night talk show. But perhaps that is the last and most crucial thing to remember about Stewart’s time with “The Daily Show,” which has touched on three different presidents’ tenures over five different terms and run well over 2,000 episodes, from 1999 to tonight. Stewart has privileged compassion and honesty in his comedy; he has spoken truth to power, and been unafraid to critique both world leaders and his own friends. He’s been a good person—and like all good people, whether they are leaders or followers or somewhere in the middle, he used what he had to do the right thing. What he happens to have—what he deploys with stunning effect—is the ability to make people laugh. I can only hope that Stewart will make us laugh many times more, even once he’s parted ways with “The Daily Show.”